In a time of global pandemic, of fear, worry, and sorrow, Psalm 116 is at once inspirational and aspirational. It is inspirational in its witness to God’s faithfulness in hearing our cries of distress from places of disorientation and even death. It is aspirational in that we all can but hope that very soon we will be able to join the psalmist in not only crying to God but in thanking God for delivering us from our crisis. When I read this psalm to prepare for this article, I found myself thinking again and again, “Let it be so for all of us, O Lord. Let it be so soon.”
The RCL guts out the middle section of Psalm 116 for no discernible reason and since the poem flows together consistently and well, I will treat the entire psalm here, though these preaching ideas will work just fine if you stick to the lection as stipulated by the Lectionary and scoop up the first four and the final eight verses.
Psalm 116 is a very honest poem. On the one hand it spends a lot of time thanking God for what clearly appears to be deliverance from a potentially fatal situation. On the other hand verse 15 notes that the death of God’s faithful servants is precious in the eyes of the Lord. Obviously, then, the praise of God for his deliverance from death is not to be interpreted as some “Get Out of Death Free” card for any and all who are faithful and ask God for help. At some point, for even the most faithful of believers, the end of this earthly journey does come.
We wish it were not so of course. It is like Jesus telling Martha in John 11 that if you believe on him, “you will never die.” But Jesus said that on his way to the tomb of a friend who had died—and who, despite being raised by Jesus that day, died again one day (Lazarus is not still walking around the Middle East). The Martha who affirmed her belief that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life” came to her life’s end eventually too. Everyone does. And for all of us who manage to not die of COVID-19 (whether we contract the virus and recover or dodge it altogether) we may be able to sing Psalm 116’s praises to God eventually but we will not for that reason never see death.
I suppose that as this is the Psalm assigned for two weeks after Easter in the Year A Lectionary there may be some thought that we could envision Jesus himself reciting this. He did die (and his death was precious to the Father) AND he came back from death (and in Jesus’ case, he did come back never to die again). Or we can put these words on our own lips as thanksgiving for the resurrection. If so, then the paradox of Psalm 116 fits well: we both believe we have been delivered from final death and we also know that we will still have a physical death first somewhere along the line. Whether or not the poet of this psalm could ever have imagined that the tension that exists along these lines would apply to people the way it now does is hard to say but there it is.
But that is just part of this psalm. The gratitude is also important to note here. “What can I give back to God for all this salvation?” the psalmist wonders. Well, he says he will make a sacrifice. He will lift up some kind of cup of thanksgiving. He will fulfill his vows. He will testify to others about God’s goodness (even as he has done so through the composing of this very psalm). And that is all great. But let’s be honest: none of it is really sufficient.
We have all made analogies like this before: if someone slips you $5 so you can buy a slice of pizza and then tells you to not worry about paying him back, a hearty “Thanks, man!” may suffice. But if someone donates a kidney to you so that you can live another 30 years instead of dying when you are 50 or something, well, “Thanks, dude!” will seem powerfully watery as an expression of gratitude for so large a gift. In fact, you will probably never have a day when you don’t want to show thanksgiving to this donor and yet you will also probably never find a way to satisfy your desire for gratitude no matter what you do or say or how often you do it or say it.
Some gifts defy the ability to even things up. It reminds me of the episode of “The Big Bang Theory” in which Sheldon Cooper is going to do a gift exchange with his friend Penny. But Sheldon does not like ever being in anyone’s debt so he buys at least a half-dozen gifts in increasing increments of cost so that once he sees and estimates how much Penny’s gift to him cost, he can give her a gift of slightly higher value (and then return all the others to the stores for a refund). But then Penny pulls a fast one (though she did not intend to): she ended up being the waitress one evening to Sheldon’s hero, the actor Leonard Nimoy or “Mr. Spock” of Star Trek fame and has him autograph a cloth napkin and this is her gift to Sheldon. He is shocked. He cannot put a price tag on this precious gift. To Sheldon this gift is of inestimable value. So he proceeds to give Penny all six of the gifts he bought and realizes it’s still not enough so he does something that this socially awkward man never does: he gives her a heartfelt hug. And he still knew it was not enough . . .
That’s the way it goes with God. We are right, along with the psalmist, to feel overwhelming gratitude. But we are also right it will never suffice. And yet . . . there is every indication in the Bible that by the same grace that saves us, God does regard it as enough. Consider this the gift that comes on top of the gift. God is pleased with our feeble attempts to say Thanks.
And that is grace indeed.
On the idea of God’s accepting whatever thanksgiving we can give him, Billy Collins’s poem “The Lanyard” says it all:
The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.
Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 26, 2020
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19 Commentary